Tag Archives: music

Commonground_festival

A Change is Gonna Come

“I’ve never been to a festival like this before”, says Sarah-Jane, her blue eyes twinkling. “Where you start from an assumption that everyone is your friend”.
And it’s true. What is extraordinary about the Commonground Festival in Seymour, near Melbourne, is not the beautiful red gum landscape; not the soul-scoring music; not the delicious home-grown, home-cooked food; not the inevitable problems with blocked toilets… All these are already festival favourites. What is extraordinary here is the intense feeling of connection; the strong sense of purpose; the deep, meaningful conversation; the sparkly, convivial atmosphere. It’s like a huge family party, without the starched formalities which often accompany such events.

The festival is opened by indigenous elder Uncle Larry Walsh, who welcomes us to country in the lyrical language of the Taungurung people. “Wominjeka. Pallian beek.” He explains that the words are a welcome from his tribe, which stretches from East to West across this part of the Kulin nation. In my volunteer role documenting the weekend, I film him, my camera on a borrowed tripod, since I managed, somehow, to leave my tripod on the tram on the way here.

Uncle Larry, his grey hair flowing free like the  many rivers in his part of the world, congratulates Commonground on their thirtieth birthday. Thirty years since a small group of radical, like-minded health professionals pooled their resources to buy this block of land. Thirty years since they camped out, small children and all, and began to cook up a dream. They wanted to both create an intentional community and to support social change makers in their work for a more just and sustainable world. They hand built a rambling rabbit-warren of a building to house not only themselves, but groups who wanted a space to come together in. Fashioned from mud brick and recycled materials, it sits comfortably in the hillside overlooking hills and bushland. A tour takes us around the property, taking in the abundant veggie gardens, the apple orchard and the quirky octagonal structure which was their first attempt at construction.

It’s ironic that this Festival takes place the same weekend as our appointed world leaders take the stage for the G20 summit in Brisbane. Despite Tony Abbott’s encouragement for them all to be in first name terms, there are few genuine friendships there. How different might the world look if power was in the hands of those who really cared? If all our governments were working for a more just and sustainable world? Instead, Abbott is calling for focus to be kept on economic growth – a concept which has long since proved itself to be out of step with the needs of both people and planet.

Uncle Larry shares the stage with Kate Lewer, one of that small group of founders. Kate glows as he reminisces with her about the collaborations between Commonground and the Aboriginal community to decide how they could best work together to manage the land. It’s clear that he holds a fondness for these people and he stays around all night and all the next day – enjoying a yarn around the smoky fire as the music from the bands sings out across the tall gums. Whilst it’s true that this is a mostly white-face festival, there’s a general feeling that we are all on the same page when it comes to how to get along. And if we want some help with that, the workshops run by Commonground’s sister organisation, the Groupwork Institute on “Emotional Resilience” and “Working Collaboratively”, give us ideas and skills to take away.

Part of my job here is to talk to a few of the musicians about the role they feel music has in social change. I take them up onto the stony hill overlooking the festival site and frame them with the stage in the background. Mandy Connell is a singer-songwriter from Melbourne. She sits on a log and plays me a plaintive folk song which questions the suspension of human rights for the Northern Territory Intervention and asks who might be next under “Abbott’s Inquisition.” Her voice is clear and strong and those nearby lean in to listen. “Last time I read about the NT Intervention, I figured when they finished, they’d be comin’ for the nation…”

Robbie Bundle is an indigenous musician from West Footscray. He strums a song called “My Sacred Place” and it’s clear that for him, land rights and sense of belonging is one of the important social issues that music can help to articulate. “Take me back to my sacred place, take me home…”

Lying in my tent and listening to the rain on Sunday morning, I switch on my phone and pick up some news about how the G20 is going. Tony Abbott has embarrassed himself once more by boasting about his regressive policies on carbon emissions, on asylum seekers and on health care. Vladimir Putin, although not shirt fronted, leaves the gathering early. Here at Commonground, though, we are reluctant to leave. We want to live always in this warm bubble of possibility. Weekends like this show us a way to be which is inclusive, considerate and conscious.

As if to prove the theory, when I call Yarra trams to see if my tripod has been handed in, the man in the phone is delighted to tell me that they have it there waiting for me. Perhaps the bubble of possibility is, after all, for more than just a weekend.

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David Bridie & Frank Yamma

Sometimes, knowledge of an artist or musician sidles slowly into your peripheral vision. A friend mentions him or her; a gig or an exhibition shows up; you buy a CD, take it home. It grows on you. And sometimes, the artist arrives with a bang. You see or hear something and you are instantly intrigued. Beguiled, even. It was this way with David Bridie and Frank Yamma, two Australian musicians who have worked together on a series of projects. The one which caught my eye first was the film Satellite Boy.

Satellite Boy is a charming, yet haunting parable about a young Aboriginal growing up in remote Western Australia. The film paints a bleak picture of his life and community, scrabbling in the red dirt for a living, for a hope and a dream.  The Satellite Boy himself has a special relationship with his grandfather, who tries, but does not quite take the place of his absent mother. The story takes us deep into dreamtime, where the boy learns to understand, appreciate and to practice the ways of Country.

David Bridie created the score and performed the soundtrack with several other artists, including Frank Yamma. It moves between nursery jingle and folk lore to emotional yearning and spiritual calling. All together, it’s a dark and light package of Australian-ness. Straight from the kangaroo’s tail.

I watched the film in Melbourne, all the way down South, but with its own form of native resonances. I was new to Australia, eager to learn about its First Peoples and finding it difficult to access authentic expressions of Aboriginal culture. I probably just didn’t know where to look, which is why it was so nice to find this in my local cinema. An accessible format and an accessible tale, but still rich with the colour and sound of Australia. The movie has been followed recently with a beautiful story also starring veteran indigenous actor David Gulpilil. Charlie’s Country follows the fortunes of an aging blackfella who is still struggling to find his place in a world which romanticises ‘the old ways’ of his ancestors, but in which the ‘new ways’ of the whitefellas are equally alien to him. Both these projects are a collaboration between Aboriginal and white artists and to me, are all the more compelling for it, as it seems to shine a message of hope that co-habitation and mutual understanding are possible in this vast, magical land.

The soundtrack to Satellite Boy was a favourite in our house after that visit to the cinema, and we started to explore other music by the artists involved. We also stumbled across The Circuit, a TV series directed by the the same woman who wrote and directed Satellite Boy – Catriona Mackenzie. This series is set in the same part of Australia, Broome and The Kimberley and benefits from a great soundtrack of Aboriginal anthems. We took the soundtracks with us on our own adventures to that region and they seemed to help us connect with the red highways, the flat grassy plains and the strange boab trees.

After months of listening to the soundtracks, we were pleased to see that David Bridie and Frank Yamma were playing a set of gigs in Melbourne area. The first two, Husband had to attend alone, as I was out of town. I had to endure his excited texts and experience the gigs vicariously, but for the third gig, we went together to see them – all the way down to the ocean at Torquay. It was a lovely warm spring afternoon and the colourful market on the sea front made us both feel very welcome. The sea was doing a deep blue blush and it felt like people were out to relax and enjoy a great Sunday on the coast. The mood at the Bowls Club was buoyant and David, Frank and guitarist Phil Wales received a warm seaside welcome. They joked that the Bowls Club followed gigs at Trades Hall and a Working Men’s club in Elsternwick, but their wry self-depreciation only made us appreciate our luck. What a treat, to be with such distinguished musicians in an intimate venue on a fine Sunday afternoon!

David is a tall, fine boned man who looks a little uncomfortable as he folds himself behind his keyboard. I’ve recently been reading a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts, by Susan Cain. The book analyses the modern Western trend for extroverts and asks why we no longer value the introverted natures which often produce artists, musicians and poets? David, both poet and musician, appears altogether the introvert, singing plaintive, thoughtful lyrics to swooping melodies. He is clearly thinks about things deeply. Frank, too, looks like he’d rather be anywhere but on stage. He mumbles a few lines to the crowd, who lap up every word, revelling in the sound of his crystallised honey, care worn voice. When he opens his mouth to sing the weight of his race tumbles forth. He sings in tongue, in Pitjantjatjara. It’s one of around 60 Aboriginal languages still in use today and we can’t understand, but in a sense, we don’t need to. The way he sings tells us all we need to know.
These three, David, Frank and Phil, are old buddies. For one track, Phil brings out a squarish mandolin-type instrument and plucks its three strings meaningfully. “Old, ancient instruments for old, ancient musicians”, he jests.
And in some ways, it’s true, these guys are not the young crowd. And yet their music speaks of life and experience and there’s no way the young folk can argue with that.

At the end of the gig, when the Quiet book says that introvert performers would rather be hiding in the toilets, David is kind enough to give us a few minute of his time. He tells me he went to Wales years ago. He wrote a song about Aberystwyth, which turns out to be a homesick lament with a political twist. What strikes him about my home are the big winds, pale blue skies, and the English holiday homes being burned by Welsh nationalists. Land and Freedom. Maybe you can’t separate them.

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Kate Bush

I was twelve when Kate Bush released Wuthering Heights. Such a precious age for a girl child. On the brink of womanhood, I watched the young singer-songwriter on Top of the Pops and knew that women could do stuff. I was forty eight when, learning that Kate was to perform a series of concerts after a thirty five year absence from the stage, I sat at a computer in Melbourne, Australia and resolved to get a ticket. In the time in between these events, Kate has produced 10 albums, each of which I have hungrily devoured. The covers of these albums, first in vinyl and then, re-purchased as CDs, are as familiar to me as my own family.

It was an entirely engrossing experience to finally see her on stage in London. I went on my own, like so many others who had lucked their way to a ticket within the fifteen minutes that they sold out. But you know what? That was fine. For me, Kate was always a solitary activity. As a teenager, my Mum bought me a t-shirt which declared “I want to be alone!”. She was mocking my tendency to lock myself in my room and play records over and over. A lot of the time, I was playing Kate Bush LPs. Kate’s early work carried me through my teenage years but it is not these songs she plays in stage in 2014. I don’t mind at all. Outside the venue, TV camera crews ask fans which tracks they want to hear, but no-one cares. Really. Whatever she does is fine by us.

As is often the way among fans, Kate’s most famous hits are not my favourites. Babooshka and Running up that Hill are amazing, of course, but give me Army Dreamers or Breathing from her second album, Never For Ever, any day. These songs mark the beginning of my political thinking. Ask me about my opinions on war and you will hear these lyrics in the background. It’s a feminine, pragmatic approach. People die in wars. Every soldier is someone’s son. Oh yes, and we need to take care of our environment, or we’ll have no clean air to breathe.

Kate took control of her musical career early on and I have always admired that strong independence. It seemed that, more than any other female artist, she was in control of her own image, her own story. In a world where women are fiercely exploited, Kate engineered her own destiny. And that, to me, is a political statement too. Not only can women do stuff, but they can do it on their own terms.

As the press review that first concert as a “comeback”, I think, “But she never went away!”. The mystery and enigma of the artist that is Kate Bush is a result of the intrusive and sensationalist nature of our media. In order to keep her integrity, she needed to keep to herself. But she never stopped producing. Never stopped working. Never even took a parenting break. The release of her music has been consistent. Life has been her muse.

I like to think of Kate as a companion. Her music has accompanied me on my own rich journey and her consistency has been inspirational. The morals and values which she holds dear are integral to her art and she has never disappointed me. She has never sold out, never sold us short. This concert is simply the next step in her impeccable track record. And yes, it was worth the wait.

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